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Located on a sprawling corner of reclaimed land on the edge of Tokyo Bay, the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, or Tsukiji (pronounced skee-jee) as it is referred to in Tokyo, is the main market within Japan devoted to the sale of seafood. Tsukiji first opened in 1935, and has now become the largest wholesale market in the world, employing tens of thousands of workers to unpack, clean, load, and sell the huge volume of fish arriving each day from more than 60 countries worldwide. Workers and tourists are joined each day by fish retailers, sushi chefs, and restaurateurs. The market sells more than 400 different types of seafood from sardines to golden brown sea slug caviar.

To the casual observer, the amount of activity, the noise, the smell, and the sheer size of the place can be bewildering. The market has become a miniature city unto itself, containing both an inner and outer area. The outer market, or Jògai Ichiba, has developed into a lively quarter that houses specialty shops serving the restaurant trade. The inner market, or Jònai Ichiba, serves as the administrative hub, alive with the relentless movement of carts and forklifts transporting the seafood. Jònai Ichiba is also the site of the daily auction, the market’s pre-eminent event, a fascinating bidding war for the three thousand bluefin tuna arriving daily. The tuna are laid out in the auction rooms, where they become the centrepieces of the bidding ritual. Each carcass is tagged to identify its origin and species, while the intermediate wholesalers, called nakaoroshi, individually inspect the tuna prior to bidding. The bidding begins at 5am and the stakes are high: the Japan Times reported that in January 2001, one 200 kilogram tuna sold for the equivalent of nearly US$200,000.

The market is prized by the city for both its gastronomic and economic contributions to urban life in Tokyo.  As Tokyo has grown into a banking, electronic, and tourist centre, there has been almost no discussion about moving Tsukiji out of the central city – its function is appreciated and its pungent smells tolerated. In 2003, Tsukiji handled 615,409 tonnes of marine products at a value of 498 billion yen (£2.4 billion). The market sells around 2,246 tonnes of seafood every day – seven times as much as its nearest rival, Paris’s Rungis, and eleven times more than New York’s Fulton Fish Market, the largest fish market in North America. By any criteria it is the biggest market in the world and an unforgettable place to visit and experience.